VIDEO: Program forces veterans to relocate - Residents told to pack up for new location at last minute

Published on Thursday, 17 April 2014 21:33 - Written by Kenneth Dean

Homeless veterans at a group home in Tyler were upset Thursday when they learned they were being moved from one location to one of two other homes in East Texas.

Many of the veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues.

They said they received no previous warning and were afraid they would be kicked back out onto the streets.

Standing with his arms crossed, John, a former Marine, said he was upset because of the short notice.

“Stability is a big thing to be able to recover, and this is just a blow. I can understand from a business point of view, but this seems like it’s a profit organization more than a nonprofit,” he said.

The veterans are part of a program that the Andrews Center runs under a contract with the Veterans Administration.

As soon as Andrews Center Director of Armed Services Judy Whitaker pulled into the drive of the home at 13470 Choctaw Drive in Tyler, she was met with some of the men, who asked her, “Why are you doing this to us?”

“I know that they are upset, but we are not making anybody leave the program,” she said.

“This isn’t right,” one veteran repeated over and over.

Ms. Whitaker said the program allows Andrews Center to provide 36 beds for veterans who are homeless.

The program gives the veterans a free place to stay for 90 days and up to 120 days to help them get back on their feet.

However, for the past six months the program has not filled the 36 spots allotted for East Texas, with two homes in Tyler and one in Athens.

“So basically we have an extra house,” Ms. Whitaker said. “So a few of the men will be moved to our other house in Tyler, and the other to New Directions in Tyler.

She said people accepted into the program are put into the first available spot, but depending on their needs, they might be moved to Athens or Tyler.  

“It’s easier to find a job in Tyler, and there is public transit,” she said. “So for someone looking for a job, we prefer to put them here. If someone has a VA check or a Social Security check, we prefer they stay in Athens in the rural area, because they are not going to be looking for a job.”

Jerry Russell, an Army veteran, said he found it odd the decision was not discussed with the clients until an hour before the house was to be closed.

“There are people who are waiting to get on a list like this,” Russell said. “There are places full of veterans who need housing. I’m really upset because it’s kind of what you are hearing in the corporate world that it is not financial this way or that way. We are trying to do something better. I am highly marketable, and I have the skills, and now they are trying to put me in Athens. I want a job, and I want to work.”

Ms. Whitaker defended the position of Andrews Center and told Russell she would work with him if he felt he needed to stay in Tyler.

“I was woke up and told ‘You have an hour to pack,’” Russell said. “I’m upset because that is not what I was told when I got in this program. I’ve only been here a week and a half.  If you want to help us, then at least let us know. You don’t just come up in like an hour,  and then say, “Hey buddy, you’ve got to go,” and expect somebody who is on edge already to be OK with that.”

Ms. Whitaker said it is a 90-day program to get them off the streets, get them some training and hopefully get them jobs and a little peer therapy by being placed with veterans in the same situation. 

“We’re not making anyone leave the program at all,” she said. “If you have 36 beds, and only 20 of them are full, then you can’t keep three houses open.

“I think this morning, this caught everyone by surprise.”

Russell said, “You guys say you signed a contract in October. You say you have had 30 percent vacancy. How come you haven’t filled those beds? There are veterans that can get out here.”

“We want those beds full every day.” Ms Whitaker responded. “We’ve gone six months way under our revenue, so we have to make a decision to keep those other two houses open also. I don’t know why the VA has not filled these beds up every day.”

Ms Whitaker said she understands how the decision was upsetting to the veterans, and she apologized for the short notice. 

She also said the final decision to close the Choctaw home was made Wednesday.  

“When you’re homeless, everything is up in the air,” she said. “They get here, and I guess it takes a little while to get on a schedule, to feel safe about where you are, to know you’re going to be here a while, you’re going to have a meal, you’re going to have a bath and a room. I am sure they feel a little shaken up because they have to move.

“It’s a financial decision. We can’t continue to go in the hole, so we have to make a decision.” 

Ms. Whitaker said she hopes the move would be seen in a positive light. 

“I would like people to look at this as we’re trying to be good stewards,” she said. 

Outside sitting on a brick retaining wall, another frustrated veteran said, “I can’t comment on all of this, because you would have to bleep out everything I said on camera. It just isn’t right.”